The operation in Marjah is supposed to be the first blow in a decisive campaign to oust the Taliban from their spiritual homeland in adjacent Kandahar Province, one that McChrystal had hoped would bring security and stability to Marjah and begin to convey an "irreversible sense of momentum" in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.
Instead, a tour last week of Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali district, during which McClatchy had rare access to meetings between McChrystal and top Western strategists, drove home the hard fact that President Barack Obama's plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 is colliding with the realities of the war.
There aren't enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that's needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn't dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.
"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told a group of Afghan officials, international commanders in southern Afghanistan, and civilian strategists who are leading the effort to oust the Taliban fighters from Helmand.
"You don't feel it here," he said during a 10-hour front-line strategy review, "but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."